MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 65.4 (2004) 583-604
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The Used, the Renewed, and the Novel
After reviewing more than one book by Christopher Ricks, years back, I was readily pegged as a devotee. Leaving aside his increasingly publicized conservatism in the years since, there remains much to admire in all that he, rather than it, conserves: the literary tradition he treasures, scrupulously curates by comparative stylistics, sometimes restores by philological X-ray and retouching, always reframes and lights from eye-opening new angles, and often takes on the road in his eloquent traveling shows. How, then, to say no when asked to grapple again with his new work—on literary allusion—by, of all things, a quarterly of modern language studies committed to issues of literary history? Would the tenor of his precision look different in an age badgered into thinking of itself as posttheory? It wasn't that I expected any fresh, uncharted direction in Ricks's thought from a book called Allusion to the Poets. This literary function has always been among the most resonant (because one of the tautest) strings to his critical bow. I had, in fact, seen one or two of the pieces in journal or anthology form along the way. Vintage Ricks: nothing less, nothing new. Nothing new—except line by illuminated line. But would allusion itself look different now, when its confident notice, let alone its full notation, seems like an endangered species of response?
At a high pitch of intentionalism, literary writing leaves no suspicions, [End Page 583] in Ricks's view, about the Death of the Author. Debts are always being revitalized by conscious design. At issue is not a culture of literary discourse speaking facelessly through each new text. We are concerned instead with verbal genius, always original and derivative at once, paying its dues even while drawing its dividends. (The fiscal metaphors allude to a barrage of Ricks's own, as we'll see.) In this new collection, literature is again for Ricks what it always has been: a Dead Poets Society, whose price of admission is the newly minted revisionary line.
Ricks never met an allusion he didn't like—or failed to spot. The analytic mastery this lends him is daunting and bracing in equal measure. And this volume is its monument: a monument to a whole waning era of professional reading. A monument, all right—but a functioning archive still, and a treasure trove. Part 1 , then: "The Poet as Heir," with six essays, first on Dryden and Pope together, then on Burns, Wordsworth (about whom Ricks is always superb), Byron, Keats, and Tennyson. Then another six, on Housman, Yvor Winters, and other matters more loosely grouped under the rubric "In the Company of Allusion." Which is for Ricks always good company, whether two or a crowd. Nothing here of the patricidal castration anxiety of Harold Bloom's great tradition, with its strong progenitors and oedipal usurpers, all influence taking shape as a misreading spurred by nervous trauma. For Ricks, "literary geniture" (31 ) is more stately and measured an affair, more rhetorical and metric. Allusion is not the tip of its chilling iceberg so much as the true lay of its fertile land.
But why? What's allusion to the poets, or they to it, that criticism should carry on so? Is that very cadence from Hamlet part of the allusive overtone, one wonders, of Ricks's own title, in defiance of more straightforward prepositional forms. Allusion in the poets? Allusions of the poets? Sure, those would have done. But to the poets is more to Ricks's point: tracing the active vectors of derivation. And what of them who allude? To the poets, allusion to others like them is not only the proof of a lineage but the hope of a lifeline. To the poets, it would sometimes seem, allusion is all. So even the book's freestanding essay on a single instance of poetic diction, loneliness...